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“ Digital Domain, the digital studio service co-founded by Cameron, Stan Winston and Scott Ross, provided most of the computer work necessary for the project. ”

Big names, big company and an even bigger attraction

T2:3D Will Debut at Universal Studios Florida

From: Variety's On Production
Date: 1996
By: David Heuring

James Cameron makes a point of blasting through the boundaries of filmmaking technology on every undertaking, and his newest work, Terminator 2: 3-D, is no exception. This time, however, you'll have to travel to Florida to see the results.

Terminator 2: 3-D is a $60 million attraction opening in late spring at Universal Studios Florida. The action-packed adventure combines a 3-D production on three screens, with live actors, a motorcycle roaring onto the stage and elaborate physical stage design in the theatre to create the ultimate visual experience.

"We wanted to make a unique cinematic experience that would be a worthy continuation of the first two Terminator films, using the latest advances in film science in service of entertainment," says producer Chuck Comisky. "Jim wanted a film that was short enough that almost every visitor to Universal Studios Florida could see it during their day at the park. And he wanted the audiences to walk out into the Florida sunshine and say, 'Wow! I've never seen anything like that before.'"

Three 23 x 50 foot screens, real actors jumping off the screen on a Harley, knockout 3-D images causing the audience to literally jump back in their seats-Terminator 2: 3-D breaks new ground in a number of areas, from the theatrical presentation to the specialized programming required for stereo CG images. Previously untried techniques were used in almost every scene. To top it off, the visuals had to blend seamlessly, with perfect timing. Models, miniatures, computer graphics and live action on the screen share the stage with live actors and physical stage design in the theater. To make Terminator 2: 3-D an overwhelming visual feast, the final product is in a format to end all formats: 70mm 3-D projected on three separate screens. Cameron hired Comisky to unite the various elements into a coherent whole, and ensure the new film followed the stylistic patterns in design, lighting, movement, and editing set by its trendsetting forebears, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Comisky's credits range from Jaws 3-D to three-dimensional imagery from the surface of Mars used by NASA for scientific research. Three-dimensional photography, like many of today's advanced imaging technologies, got a big push from NASA and America's space program. The 3-D images sent back to Earth from Mars were almost impossible to look at: the two cameras were mounted eight feet apart on the lander, making the interocular distance painfully wide. Comisky photographed the lander mock-up at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories) and worked with Dr. Ken Jones who made the images viewable so NASA scientists could extrapolate data about size and distance relationships among objects in the frame. His work on the Mars project gave Comisky a taste for doing the truly unprecedented-which made him a natural partner for Cameron.

Asked about the daunting task set before him on Terminator 2: 3-D, Comisky replies, "It's a challenge like anything else. You don't work with Jim unless you're willing to hang it out there. I saw my job as basically to provide Jim a comfortable environment in which to work."

Comisky's first step was to hire a crew of Cameron veterans. Visual effects supervisor John Bruno came on to help conceptualize and design the project, as he had done on most of Cameron's films, and to determine the best method for accomplishing each shot. Eventually Bruno's credit would be co-director. The principal cast from the other films had all agreed to participate: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick.

Digital Domain, the digital studio service co-founded by Cameron, Stan Winston and Scott Ross, provided most of the computer work necessary for the project. Comisky and a stable of freelance production people oversaw their efforts, led by Bruno, Stan Winston, and the Skotak brothers. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter, ASC (True Lies) photographed the live action sequences with the help of 3-D director of photography Peter Anderson.

Terminator 2: 3-D divides neatly into three sections. Act I begins with live actors rappelling into the theater. Stage design and audio links them to the CG (computer graphics) action on the screen, breaking down the normal boundaries. A burst of machine-gun fire from the Sarah Connor double glances off a huge logo on the center screen, which morphs into the familiar chrome face of T-1000, the shape-shifting villain of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The T-1000, played by Robert Patrick, makes a 3-D lunge into the audience. With Patrick, and the familiar voices of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and John Connor (Edward Furlong), the link to the past Terminator films is established and we're off to the races.

Act II, essentially a six-minute chase sequence, takes a more familiar form, with live-action 3-D footage of Schwarzenegger and Furlong racing through a bombed-out landscape on a Harley Fat Boy. Our heroes are pursued through Future War by a variety of determined killing machines. Time and again they narrowly miss being blown to smithereens by massive explosions, courtesy of co-director Bruno.

The three-dimensional effect makes for a harrowing experience-the explosions are hyper-realistic, and tracking shots have the audience gripping the arms of their chairs. The nonstop directing style of Cameron strengthens the connection to the other Terminator films. After a few wry lines and a few casually dispatched enemies, Arnold guides the young Connor into "Skynet," the fictional, computer-generated world where Act III plays out.

For Act III, the screen goes black for a moment and the audience enters another world. The illusion of a giant elevator ride is created by movement on film perfectly timed with the slow rise of walls covering the left and right screens. The audience is surrounded by a completely computer-generated world that is wider than their field of vision, the richness of 70mm projection, and the depth of convincing three-dimensional, or "stereo," images. Cameron and the folks at Digital Domain want you to see for yourself what happens, but there is one safe assumption-it's big.

The 3-D film experience is nearly 13 minutes long, but the undertaking was as ambitious as any effects-laden feature. During Act III the three 70mm screens each display a frame for the right and left eye, meaning that for each given length of film, six times the normal number of frames had to be created.

Production was similarly divided into three parts. This more traditional, live action part of the shoot had to be done first so that the computer artists could reference their work to what was on film. The live action shoot that makes up most of Act II took place mostly on the blasted, post-apocalyptic landscape of an abandoned iron ore mine deep in the California desert.

According to Carpenter, "We wanted to bring the traditionally static 3-D photography into the Jim Cameron universe-a kinetic and involving world. We knew it would be 3-D, but Jim felt that shooting in 65mm tells the audience that this is a cut above a regular feature. It's a more immersive experience. It's much easier to convince the audience that they've entered another world. My job was to make sure that this unwieldy format didn't have any negative stylistic impact. With Jim, that means the camera never stops."

Kinetic movement is one of Cameron's signatures. To keep the style faithful to the other Terminator films, Carpenter and the live-action unit had to move to the 450-pound twin 65mm camera rig as though it were a third of its true weight.

"The slightest shudders can ruin the 3-D effect," Carpenter continues. "We adapted and used an elaborate cable-cam rig, called a SkyCam, which hauled the camera smoothly back and forth between two beefy anchors, as much as 1000 feet apart, much like an Alpine ski-lift. Other tracking shots used camera cars, and at times we brought in industrial strength cranes. Movement was our single biggest challenge."

Camera systems from Steve Hines and Chris Condon-names well known in the 3-D world-were employed, as well as rigs put together by Digital Domain machine shop. "The A-camera setups could be programmed electronically, so you could change variables, like convergence, during a shot," Carpenter relates. "We could start with a wide shot, where you see a lot of landscape, come in to Arnold and track with him, all the while changing the interocular distance. The A-cameras also had motion record capabilities. If there was a background for a composite, we had to be able to repeat the movement as well as all the 3-D variables."

"A tremendous amount of foot candles were used over an immense area the size of a small town," Carpenter says. "Four Musco lights generated approximately 300 foot candles. I wanted to work at T5.6 to compensate for the limited depth of field, inherent when shooting 65mm. Also, we lost one stop due to the use of beam splitters and another 25 percent because of the 30-frames-per-second frame rate. I exposed the (Eastman EXR) 5298 conservatively in order to keep the grain down. Trying to shape the light and keep the units out of the expensive shots was a test. Jim's comment when he first saw the area lit up was that 'people in the neighboring town are probably going to get up and go to work-they'll think it's morning.'"

Some Act II live-action sequences were enhanced by Bob and Dennis Skotak, who contributed various flying enemies, which seem momentarily deadly but are fortunately no match for Arnold. Much of the computer work on the film, however, shows up in Acts II and III. Digital effects supervision for those two portions of the film was shared by Digital Domain's team of Judith Crow and Neville Spiteri, with Amy Jupiter serving as digital effects producer.

Like many key participants in the project, Spiteri and Crow began their involvement more than a year and a half ago. Spiteri has been at Digital Domain for just over two years. His talents have been applied to True Lies, Interview With a Vampire, and several award-winning commercials. Crow comes from a background in design photography. During the test phase, Spiteri and Crow concentrated on a variety of computer animation and image processing software, learning the strengths and weakness of each package, and determining where proprietary code would be required to fill in the gaps.

Crow, Spiteri and their co-workers also used the test period to determine an optimal resolution for printing the CG frames to 65mm negative. Resolution had to be high enough to keep the huge 70mm images convincing and grain-free. These images had to blend seamlessly with the high-impact, 65mm-originated sequences shot by Carpenter. But the high volume of frames meant that every step up in resolution put a greater strain on the budget and schedule.

Act III takes place in a world entirely created in the computer. This allowed the filmmakers to freely choose camera angle, "focal length" or its computer equivalent, angle of view, interocular distance, convergence, movement and cuts. But the images still had to look like the same movie. Everything had to be timed and designed with what happens concurrently in the actual theater. People accustomed to creating entirely in the digital world found themselves with surprisingly concrete, real-world problems -- for instance, how long does it take an actor to run across the stage? Aside from timing, however, "We could really indulge in what the computer is capable of doing," says Spiteri.

"In any 3-D computer graphics, the main challenge is building things as though they're in three-dimensional space," explains Crow. "You can place a camera the same way you place the object. So you can say it should behave as if it's two and half inches apart, or 10 inches apart; and of course each program is capable of different views. You have to tell it the perspective, and the point at which things appear to meet the screen plane. We did a lot of tests to learn the best place to put all those things.

"We were trying to make an environment that feels like a continuation of the space you're sitting in," she says. "So all the time you're really looking at all these scale objects in the theater, and then our scene is hopefully a continuation. The theater was planned from the very beginning, so we could work with an awareness of that and get a good view for everyone in the house."

Spiteri programmed the computer to take each of the CG images and create a left and right eye image. The CG artists could apply computer equivalents of interocular distance and convergence in a trial-and-error fashion to each scene. When scenes were ready for the true test, they were printed to two strips of 70mm film and projected on the big screen.

Complicating matters, according to Crow, was the variety of methods the programs use to describe images. "Some packages use the angle of view as the dominant determinant of how the camera works; others talk about focal length. There are all kinds of ways of arriving at the same result," she says.

The few filmmakers who have actually participated in a 3-D production understand that the experience is different for each viewer. What works for the perceptions of one viewer may be completely unconvincing -- or worse, give a headache-to the next. The imaginations of some people are less firmly anchored to reality, which means they might be more apt to go along with an illusion; others may require more persuading. This makes for interesting production meetings.

"It's subjective," agrees Crow. "Some people can view stereo images that are way out in their faces, and some cannot. Deciding on that level of tolerance, the bounds of reason for most people, can lead to a lot of discussion."

To be sure, other, more prosaic-and more solvable-problems presented themselves along the way. "Technically, at first the problems seemed insurmountable," says Spiteri. "How to implement these new solutions, to make it all work together, and in stereo as well? Eventually we figured all that out, and then the job became one of data management, of dealing with such a tremendous volume of material."

Crow agrees. "The most important lessons we learned didn't involve the images-it was the logistics of moving all this material through a pipeline. We've learned to not underestimate that facet of the job."

Remember, the three screens in Act III triple the normal number of frames per minute, and a frame each for the right and left eye double everything yet again. At the height of the project, more than 60 people were working on the avalanche of images. Every night three 65mm film recorders rendered recent work. Each frame took at least four or five seconds to record onto high-resolution Eastman EXR 5245 film. With some frames incorporating 100 elements, it's hard to imagine the processing power devoted to the project.

Digital Domain is already applying the lessons they learned on Terminator 2: 3-D to the CG aspects of their next project, Cameron's Titanic. Unfortunately, the stereo imaging experience they gained will only be useful if another 3-D project comes up.

Comisky, for one, sees a bright future for 3-D films. "Some of the things being done today with liquid crystal shutters are very interesting," he says. "But I don't see this moving into the normal feature world. I think theme parks are the ideal venue for stereo image presentations, because by the time the average person is finished looking at a 10- or 15-minute film, their eyes are tired. Unless you're a kid, a full-length feature of this type will give you a headache.

"I think that's why Captain Eo has been such a success, as well as Sea Dreams, and Honey I Blew Up the Audience. It's the perfect format for stereo images, and the right length, at least until someone comes up with the technology where you don't need glasses."

There are only two facilities in the world that can contain Terminator 2: 3-D. One is the specially built, 700-seat theater at Universal Studios Florida, and the other is a temporarily converted airplane hangar at the Van Nuys, California, airport where the filmmakers could check their work. Comisky has spent a lot of time there over the preceding months.

"On the other hand, I must tell you that after working on this movie for over a year, and looking at dailies in twin 70mm, regular movies look pretty flat to me," he says. "It's very sharp, and your brain tends to equalize. So who knows what the future holds?"

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Page last modified: April 24, 2012 | 11:49:27